Executives Through Experimentation: The B-School Internship Experience
Business school applications require many thousands of words’ worth of essay questions, usually dealing with those universal but ephemeral corporate themes of Teamwork, Impact, and Dealing With Difficult Situations. Somewhere within this morass the applicant is generally expected to answer the question, “What are you going to do with an MBA?” To this there are three types of answers:
1. The Exceedingly Grandiose (“Harness the power of sustainable development to change the fate of the Third World”).
2. The Believable But Contrived (“Leverage my current skill set and augment it with a top-notch experiential education”).
3. The True But Obviously Unacceptable (“Get a job that doesn’t make me want to kill myself”).
Needless to say, upon matriculation these claims are immediately forgotten, as the practical matters of schoolwork and socializing take over. But right around the time that everyone starts giving serious thought to their summer internship, the question, unbidden, comes roaring back. What am I going to do with my MBA?
The summer internship, as the mid-point of the two-year MBA, carries far more import than regular people usually ascribe to the word “internship”. It is often assumed that upon graduation the student will give serious consideration to a full-time position at the summer employer or, at the very least, remain in the same general industry. This past January, at the MIT Sloan School of Management, anxieties around internships began to escalate. As a first-year, I found the whole process to be like a pop quiz, blindsiding me into making a life-changing decision before I was ready. I mean, I came to business school to escape the real world.
Eventually, however, an attractive opportunity presented itself. Through an old colleague I was introduced to a startup in Boston called WordStream, which got its funding a year ago and launched its product in January. WordStream is run by Rob Adler, a serial entrepreneur who was brought in a month after the company’s funding to be CEO. Rob, a Harvard Business School grad, exudes enthusiasm, and is one of those mysterious people whose number of connections on LinkedIn is listed as “500+”, which always make you wonder exactly how much larger than 500 people their network is.
WordStream is still at the stage where the company’s strategy is constantly being reexamined and openly discussed amongst everyone in the company (there are currently only 18 full-time employees). Who is our target customer? What exactly is our value? How should the product change?
The entrepreneurship professors at Sloan, veteran entrepreneurs themselves, often speak in quasi-romantic tones about working for a startup as a capitalistic ideal, the intersection of high-minded business strategy and dirty, sweaty reality. They could not be more correct. About a week after starting at WordStream, Rob came over to me, looking grave. “I’d like to speak with you for a minute,” he said. He brought me into the conference room, which I vaguely registered as looking different than it had the last time I was in there. “Now you may notice we’re standing in the middle of this conference room, where we used to have a table. I need you to fashion a new table. You go to MIT, I’m sure you can figure it out.”
Then the next day, I helped the founder design the new version of the product. We sat in the conference room, around an impressive looking table that was actually cleverly constructed from four smaller ones.
With my internship complete, I still don’t know what I want to do in nine months, when I’ll officially have my MBA. But I feel like I’ve been exposed to something raw: a firm as a loose social construct gradually working to become more defined. New clients sign up, assumptions are challenged, and new ideas are proposed and then implemented within days. The rapid evolution is at once dizzying and exciting.
Among my classmates coming back to Cambridge and entering our final year, I’ve noticed a subtle change, an acknowledgement that perhaps business school is not about escaping reality, but rather preparing for it. Summer experiences have varied widely, from the life-changing to the pleasant realization that there is no requirement to speak to those people ever again come September. Either way, the idealism of the first year is giving way to the pragmatism of the second.
The lesson I’ve taken away from my summer internship is this: I want to help create something. Expounding upon corporate strategy is fine, but what could be more challenging and rewarding than building an idea into an institution? Maybe by graduation I can take another crack at “What are you going to do with an MBA?,” and my time at WordStream, along with the whole business school experience, will will give me a new kind of answer to the big question: Recently Self-Aware.